Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews mix as well as oil and water. Since the founding of the Reform movement in the mid-1800s it’s been this way. Reform Jews sought to settle into American society without old, traditional practices marking them as different from everyone else. Orthodox Jews beg to differ about the importance of tradition. For them, Jewish ritual is commanded by God. Each sides thinks they’re right, and a holy chariot isn’t about to drop from the heavens anytime soon and specify whether anyone’s observance is truly closer to kadosh (holy.)
I’ve made clear on this blog that I take Orthodox Jews on an individual basis and don’t think the bigoted opinions of some reflect all. But occasionally, as with a particularly perturbed Jewish woman I encountered in the Lincoln Square Starbucks on Saturday, non-liberal Jews go out of their way to tell Reform Jews what they’re “doing wrong.”
As I recently wrote, I take ritual observance–learning it, doing it right from a Reform perspective, doing it right for me–seriously. I go out of my way to prepare for the beginning of Shabbat (the Jewish sabbath) on Friday evening. I observe Shabbat in a way that for me speaks to the spirit of the traditional prohibitions on working and creating on that day, while not following the letter of Jewish law regarding Shabbat observance–because in Reform Judaism, those laws are understood in a different way from Orthodox Judaism. And I now wear a kippah (aka yarmulke) full-time.
On Saturday, all of that came together to blow the mind of an obviously non-liberal Jewish lady who sat down next to me and my Reform Jewish friend, Glinda (“You know,” she told me when I met her, “like the good witch?”) She and I were having a post-temple coffee to discuss my conversion journey, the meaning of Reform Judaism, and the welcome we’ve both received in our respective congregations. At one point, a middle-aged Jewish couple we had just left behind earlier that afternoon at temple dropped in, adding to the conviviality of our conversation. When they left, I opened my laptop and noted to Glinda that I needed to complete some important work before the end of the day.
Danger, Will Robinstein!
Danger, because in the middle of our obviously Jewish conversation, a compact, curly-haired fifty-something woman plopped down next to me at our large communual table, a bit too close for comfort, and proceeded to mutter under her breath after every few sentences Glinda and I shared with each other. Among the few words we were able to make out: “very wrong,” “weird,” and “not right.”
We just thought she was a crackpot. Essentially, we were right. As we got up to leave, I walked away from the table about a minute before Glinda. When Glinda met me outside, she had a shocked look on her face.
“You’re not going to believe what that lady started saying about you as soon as you left the table!”
It started to make sense.
“She leaned over to the guy sitting across from her–I don’t think she even knew him–and started telling him how weird you were because you were wearing a kippah but talking about converting Reform, and how wrong it was to be in a coffee shop with your computer open talking about working on Shabbat!”
Oh, no she didn’t.
And yes, oh yes, I did. Glinda pleading behind me, “Michael don’t…,” were the last words I heard before my feet walked me back into the Starbucks. I marched up to my former table-mate, tapped her on the shoulder, and told her in no uncertain terms:
“I’m Reform. The Orthodox don’t own the kippah!”
I wasn’t really interested in a response. As she began to mutter, “But…but…don’t you know!” I turned around to walk out and shouted back over my shoulder with my finger in the air, “No, I guess I don’t know!”
I’ve tried to make sense of the incident for the past two days, and it’s also become a subject of discussion in this thoughtful JewsByChoice.org comment thread. No, I didn’t need to respond to her. No, we don’t know for sure she was Orthodox, though Glinda and I initially felt that’s how she came off. And, no, I didn’t owe her any explanation. And I don’t want to end up another knee-jerk Reform Jew with an unexamined, unfair negative opinion about Orthodox Jews.
But when you’re a (future or otherwise) Reform Jew encountering such a knee-jerk reaction to your own denomination from the “other side,” it’s hard not to swing your head around, raise your eyebrows, and yell back, “Yenta, please!” Which, in hindsight, is what I wish I had said to her.
If this woman had engaged me conversation while I was sitting next to her, she might have learned how seriously I take my Jewish ritual observance, or how I had considered the message it might sent to others by opening that laptop on Shabbat while wearing my kippah. She also might have learned that, while I try not to work on Shabbat, the work I needed to do arrived unexpectedly at a critically needed time for me, and I felt deeply grateful to God for its arrival (because, frankly, its arrival was a lifesaver.)
Of course, if she was really Orthodox (as I suspect she was), none of this would have mattered. By the letter of Jewish law, on Shabbat you don’t work, you don’t carry, you don’t turn things on and off. You just don’t.
Have I mentioned yet she had to lean over her own open laptop to talk about me?
The bottom line can be found in the gulf that has separated Reform and Orthodox Jews for a century and a half. Orthodoxy considers the letter of Jewish law to be binding. Reform doesn’t. Telling someone outside of your tradition that they’re not doing Jewish right is rude. Telling someone that they’re not doing Jewish right when, by your own standards, you aren’t doing it right either, is silly.
As I wrote in the JewsByChoice comment thread, I’m open to friendly discussion about who I am as a person and about my Jewish journey. But I don’t feel any responsibility for the mis-perceptions of other people about me if they decide not to take the matter up with me. I know this is considered–and taught as–a responsibility by many Jews. But from a Reform perspective–not to mention a 12-step recovery perspective (which is also a part of my journey)–I am simply not responsible for other people’s feelings. I’m responsible for my own and that’s that.
If someone finds my actions in public violate their personal sensibilities about what constitutes appropriate Jewish behavior, that’s life. The appropriate response is to realize there’s more than one way to be Jewish, not to bellyache to me that I’ve thrown them out of their comfort zone.
It’s a big world. Sometimes you just need to embrace diversity, take an Advil, and deal.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.